The RSPB Big Birdwatch 2019

Dear Readers, the Memorial service for my Mum is taking place this Saturday (2nd February) at 11 a.m. at St Andrews Church in Milborne St Andrew.  I will write a little more about this soon, but in the meantime I just wanted to say thank you for the kindness and support that you have shown to me during this awful time. It has been such a comfort.

Dear Readers, every year it seems to be the same. I settle down to record the birds in my garden for the Big Garden Birdwatch (which is in its fortieth year this year), and all the unusual critters disappear. But data is data, and so I am only mildly irritated when one of the two feral pigeons who use the garden turns up and claims the ‘bird table’ for 30 minutes. I have named this one ‘Gladys’, for reasons that I find it difficult to explain. She is a very elegant bird (and may indeed be a male, though I have spotted her being courted by another pigeon so I am hedging my bets). She is, however, something of a dog in a manger. When she has eaten her fill she just sits there, and sees off all comers. Yes, even the starlings.

I have a great fondness for pigeons, as regular readers will know, but I only have an hour to get my beak count up, so I wish she’d get a move on. For those of you who don’t know about the Big Garden Birdwatch, you watch the birds in your garden, or in a local park, for an hour and record the maximum number of each species that you see. It is always on the last weekend in January, so over the years a lot of data has been collected. It highlights the relative gains and losses in Britain’s gardens, and has recorded the sad decline in species such as the house sparrow, starling and, particularly, the greenfinch. It will be interesting to see what trends this year’s Birdwatch reveals.

At the moment a flock of four chaffinches are regular visitors, and what a delight they are. At least Gladys doesn’t dissuade them.

Male chaffinch (Fringilla coeleps)

Female chaffinch

It is a particularly blustery day, and the birds that turn up in the garden seem to be blown in by the wind. I am always moved by how resilient they are, and how energetic. Gladys hasn’t moved, but there are a few other visitors. A great tit appears, and some blue tits are zipping in and out of the hedge. The coal tit who always visits the suet feeder decides not to put in an appearance until one minute after the Birdwatch is finished.

Great tit (Parus major)

As it is such a quiet time for birds, I have plenty of time to reflect on how my garden was neglected last year. Regular readers will know that my mother died towards the end of last year following a long period of ill health, and that my father was diagnosed with dementia which has gotten increasingly serious. As I look out at the pond (which should have been cleared in autumn) and some of the shrubs (which could have done with a prune) and as I notice the bramble that has advanced over the back fence and is now rooting next to the shed, I realise that there is plenty to do as soon as the weather warms up a little, and that I am rather looking forward to getting things back into order. I find myself drifting off into a reverie about what to do first and how to improve things, and I realise that when all else fails, there is always gardening. It is one of those projects that never ends, and which is all the better for it.

And then I notice a tiny movement in the bittersweet vine, and get a fleeting glimpse of a male blackcap rooting around amongst the berries. It’s too short a visit to get a photo, but it does give me the pleasure of manually adding a species to the list of ‘normal’ garden species on the Birdwatch form. I love how intensely black the cap of this bird is, like soot, and I have also spotted an attractive redheaded female blackcap, so maybe there is a pair. I saw a blackcap during last year’s Birdwatch too, so it gives me great pleasure to see the species again.

A blackcap from the 2018 Birdwatch

The regular goldfinches turn up amid a flurry of chime-like calls. I love the chequerboard pattern on their wings. Resident goldfinches are supplemented by visitors from Scandinavia in the winter. They are always such a pleasure to have in the garden. They are reputed to love nyger seed, but in my garden they  always head straight for the sunflower hearts, which I suspect are easier to eat than all those tiddly little black seeds. What I love most, though, is when I see goldfinches feeding on teasel or thistle. I might give teasel another go this year.

Goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis)

Young goldfinch feeding at the Olympic Park, Stratford

It does seem to be a bumper year for blackbirds, though. There is at least one pair, and a few random males, who are seen off by the resident male if they get too close to the female but are otherwise pretty much tolerated. I believe that all this will change soon when breeding gets going: blackbirds breed early, so it probably won’t be much longer, though the current cold spell will have slowed things up.

The resident female blackbird (Turdus merula)

Finally, Gladys gets bored, and everyone else gets a look in. I count 17 starlings in the lilac bush, waiting to see who will be brave enough to feed first. I imagine that having a range of personalities in a population of animals is a great advantage – sometimes fortune will favour the bold, and at other times it’s wiser to hang back. During last years Big Garden Birdwatch, I was visited by a sparrowhawk, and at that time discretion was definitely the better part of valour. This year, though, all was peaceful, and this starling had a couple of minutes of peace before the inevitable onslaught.

A contemplative starling

I did manage to record one species that I hadn’t been able to ‘catch’ in previous years. I took a look at the cherry tree that overhangs the garden (and so is fine for recording purposes as far as I’m concerned), and there was a song thrush in it. I found an empty snail shell on the path this morning, so I am very hopeful that the bird is eating my molluscs, though it could just be coincidence. Here is a photo from last year. Could it be the same individual, I wonder?

Song thrush (Turdus philomelos)

And so, the hour draws to a close, and I am not unhappy with my tally. As is always the way, a dunnock and a wren pop up five minutes later and a more unusual group of visitors, some long-tailed tits, swarm the whitebeam a quarter of an hour later. There is something so soothing about just sitting and looking out of the window, and all in the name of science. I enjoyed it so much that I shall be keeping my eyes open for other ‘citizen science’ projects this year. Do let me know if you are involved in any such shenanigans!

And to close, here is one of the photos that I’m most proud of in all my years of being Bugwoman – some fledgling  long-tailed tits spotted in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery. It’s too early for the birds that I saw today to be breeding just yet, but I am hopeful for later in the year. These are the most adorable bundles of fuzz, and I was so glad to be in the right place at the right time for once. It’s always good to take the time to really look, whether it’s during a walk or in my own garden. I honestly never know who is going to turn up.


12 thoughts on “The RSPB Big Birdwatch 2019

  1. Fran & Bobby Freelove

    We have a pair of Blackcaps and noticed how territorial the male is not letting the Goldfinches land on the sunflower hearts even though he much prefers the suet pellets. Since i built another wildlife pond a few weeks back a lot of my birds have been wary of coming in, i read how wild birds are very neophobic, so until they get used to it Bobby will just have to feed all hers and mine as well, lucky we’re only four doors apart! We hope your mum’s memorial service goes well, we’ll be thinking of you.

  2. pdcrumbaker

    Always uplifting, Vivienne. You are forever reminding me of the grace of small moments. I forget it…frequently…but less often since we first “met.”

  3. ravenhare

    I was thinking of you today and hope all has gone well. Loved reading of your BGBW tally. No blackcaps, but plenty of house sparrows, and a woodpecker here. Fabulous long tailed tit photo! I love them.

  4. Gail

    We had a blackcap in the garden a couple of weeks ago, I’d not seen one before. I do get frustrated by the appearances stage left, just as the hour finishes, but at least for that hour I am looking hard at just the birds instead of daydreaming around the garden.
    I hope today was a fine celebration of your mum. Take care.

  5. Sarah

    I hope the memorial service went well. I enjoyed your BGBW post. I love the annual ritual too. We did ours last Sunday, when it was blowing a hooly, and only saw seven birds of five species – I don’t think I’ve ever seen so few birds in an hour! I’ve seen a blackcap in our garden recently too, and in my last two gardens, it feels as if they are becoming more common as winter garden residents.

  6. gertloveday

    The goldfinches are beautiful, but I don’t share your tolerance for pigeons. They colonized our roof terrace in huge numbers and I had to get some very dodgy looking men to come and put pigeon spikes all round the roof and guttering lines.

  7. Laurin Lindsey

    How interesting to count birds. I have many and love watching as they come in to stay a while on their way north or to nest. The pigeons are always around. I throw seed out on the brick path so they have plenty of room. I am glad to hear you are having good thoughts about working in the garden. I have always found it a good way to grieve. HUGS

  8. Toffeeapple

    Your shot of the little Longtailed Tits is just wonderful. I was unaware of the Bird Watch so missed it this year.
    I do hope that the memorial service went well.

  9. Liz Norbury

    My garden is looking particularly sad this winter, partly as a result of the neglect it suffered in the months following my dad’s death. I should have pruned my two apple trees in the autumn: their spindly branches are now weighed down by rampant ivy, but at least the blackbirds and robins appreciate it. Most of the gardening I’ve done recently has been with a local conservation group, out on the sand dunes, clearing gorse and blackthorn, which has been absorbing and therapeutic (and prickly!). Good luck with your gardening, and I do hope your mum’s memorial service went well.


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